This week (6 – 10 June 2016) has seen the launch of the first Infant Mental Health Awareness Week (IMHAW) by Parent Infant Partnership (PIP) UK and 1001 Critical Days in conjunction with partner agencies. The aim of IMHAW has been to start conversations about the importance of the first 1001 days, from conception to age 2; in particular emphasising the importance of attachment relationships and responsive caregiving as providing the foundations for future emotional and psychological wellbeing.
The social baby
Babies are born ‘wired’ for social interaction. Some of the amazing things that are noticeable from birth include newborn babies instinctively turning towards familiar voices (mother, father, siblings, grandparents); being able to recognise a human face amidst an otherwise blurry scene; and instinctively copying an adult sticking out her/his tongue. This enables babies to elicit reciprocal interactions from caregivers that become building blocks for development.
The difference the first 1001 days make
The way that babies are held, touched, spoken to and cared for shapes the way they see themselves, others and the world around them. Babies with responsive, loving caregivers learn that they are loved and valued; that they can trust others; and that the world is a safe place. This becomes a blueprint that is carried forward and shapes future social interactions. Babies who have had this ‘good enough’ start are more likely to grow up to be children who are able to make friends, communicate and regulate their emotions, and be resilient to challenges. Research also shows that these children are more likely to be good problem-solvers and critical thinkers. So, those first 1001 days really do make a difference to long-term outcomes.
‘It takes a village to raise a child’
Childcare professionals have the potential to make a huge contribution to the healthy development of the minds of infants through their day-to-day interactions. This includes supporting infants to develop secure attachments to caregivers in childcare settings; providing sensitive and responsive care; and offering opportunities for learning through everyday social interaction including play. Understanding infant brain development also reminds us to seek to understand the meaning of children’s behaviour. For example, by recognising that a child’s behaviour in a certain situation is actually a communication that s/he finds changes to routine difficult, steps can be taken to support that child in an individualised way that will support the child to cope and prevent feelings of shame.
There are also ways in which childcare professionals can make a less direct, but equally important, contribution to the emotional wellbeing of the under 2s as part of a family’s support network. There is a lot of emphasis on child-caregiver relationships but, of course, siblings also have an important role to play in forming a relationship with a new baby that also provides a context for more brain-building interaction. So, finding ways to share in the experience of the arrival of a new sibling with children in your care is really valuable too. Childcare professionals are also in a position to share with parents the importance of those early infant-caregiver interactions, to model positive interactions for parents, and to gently remind parents to take care of themselves in order to ensure that they are emotionally available to their child and able to enjoy time with their child.
Finally, there are lots of excellent resources for both professionals and parents around to support IMHAW 2016. Here are a few of my current favourites:
- Your Baby from Warwick Medical School – this is a brilliant website (with app) which uses video to show professionals and parents how to respond to their baby in way that fosters emotional wellbeing. It includes topics such as bonding before birth, recognising the six baby states, and sleeping and soothing.
- Baby brain workout from Barnardos – these are suggestions for infant-caregiver activities for morning, lunchtime and evening, based on the Five to Thrive principles (respond, cuddle, relax, play and talk).
- Brain Builders from NSPCC – this animation, about the way in which a child’s brain develops through early experience, describes some complex concepts in a fun and accessible way.
Key takeaways and reflective questions
- Our earliest experiences in the context of relationships shape our future emotional and psychological wellbeing.
- From birth, babies actively seek out reciprocal social interaction.
- Childcare professionals can support infant mental health both directly and indirectly.
- What do you do in your setting to contribute to the healthy development of the minds of infants?
- Do you have any new ideas about anything you could do in your setting to contribute to the healthy development of the minds of infants?
- What conversations might you have in response to #IMHAW2016?
About the author
Dr Virginia Lumsden is a clinical psychologist working with children, young people and their families in the NHS and independent practice. She has an MSc in Child Development from the Institute of Education and a Doctorate in Clinical Psychology from University College London. Virginia is registered with the Health & Care Professions Council and is a member of the British Psychological Society.
Virginia believes that a strong caregiver-child connection is the key to developing a child’s psychological and emotional wellbeing. To this end, she is committed to supporting parents and other caregivers in their own self-care as she believes that this helps to ensure that these adults are emotionally available to build meaningful connections with children.
Virginia is a guest lecturer at City University London, she presents her work at conferences, and has had her research published in peer-reviewed journals. When she is not working, Virginia enjoys being in the moment with her own young family.